ORGANIC WINE PRODUCTION
by Jenny Slabber of Talborne Organics
The word “Organic Wine” conjures up much confusion as information is often picked up from conversations around the braai with buddies, or that boring lecture by some alternate impractical know-all, or the neighbour who rebelled against all advice and went on an “organic tangent” and lost his farm as a result. Recently I have noticed a curiosity and willingness among wine farmers to explore what was a frightening concept called “change” as they realise that they have to adopt sustainable farming methods if they intend to continue making a living off the family farm.
WHAT IS ORGANIC PRODUCTION?
Conservation farming methods are acknowledged to be the future of farming. One of these is the organic system of wine grape farming which emphasizes the importance of a healthy soil in sustainable productivity. This method has proven its’ long term value when applied correctly.
Organic wine grape farmers strive to build up a healthy productive soil by:
- Increasing humus (active carbon) content, which stimulates productivity by the addition of compost or planting green manures which are tilled into the soil. This improves the structure of the soil, as neither excessively sandy or clay soils deliver the best production. Water and nutrients are absorbed by soil with this “sponge like” structure, retained and stored rather than being lost by draining past the roots or runoff into streams and rivers.
- Productive soil is a living ecosystem in which beneficial soil life such as earthworms aerate soil by burrowing tunnels and distributing plant matter through the soil to feed important soil life. A number of insects like wood lice and ground beetles breakdown and recycle organic matter into the soil, and microscopic organisms such as bacteria and fungi process nutrients and make them available for uptake by the vine. There are many natural species of soil organisms whose sole purpose is to protect the vine from pests and diseases causing pathogens.
- Apply mulch or planting of cover crops to control the germination of weed seed, moderate soil temperatures, reduce water loss through evaporation and to stabilise topsoil to prevent soil erosion.
- The modern organic wine grape farmer takes a scientific approach to nutritional management for optimum crop production, while the winemaker crafts the character of the wine as influenced by the terroir, mineral content and makeup of the soil, the climate and the position of the vineyard. A soil analysis should be used as a basis for an accurate fertilizer plan. From this the chemistry such as balances between the various nutrients and pH of the soil can be corrected and fertilizer applied for optimal uptake of nutrient levels required for the life stage of the vine, the targeted yield and desired qualities which are required by the winemaker.
- Inputs like poisons, synthetic fertilizers and herbicides used by conventional farmers, which could damage the environment, pollute, kill soil life, or leave behind toxic residues in wines, soil or water sources are strictly forbidden in organic farming
- Modern organic cellars use adapted equipment and techniques to eliminate the dependency on chemical additives and preservatives such as sulphur dioxide. When a wine is labelled as Certified Organic the consumer is assured that a stringent inspection and control system, governed by worldwide standards through IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements) is applied.
WHY ARE CELLARS CHANGING TO ORGANIC PRODUCTION?
The market demand by health concious consumers is a large factor. Chemical additives and preservatives (sulphur dioxide) result in allergic reactions in sensitive people, the most prominent being the “hangover headache” or “asthmatic chest reaction”. Wines are being marketed for their health promoting qualities such as anti-oxidant content for heart health and youth preservation besides the simple enjoyment of drinking a good wine.
Environmental and socially responsible consumers, now described as the “green consumer” are a desired target market leading the change. This is seen in the campaigns for the conservation of biodiversity such as the Cape Floral Kingdom (CFK), Carbon Footprint and Fair Trade.
Most often the consumers of quality wines appreciate the nuances that are created in organically grown and crafted wines. Food and wine paring are trendy and are a passionate experience for many.
“Adapt or Die” the sustainability of the farming operation requires a new approach and organic methods offer many solutions to longevity of heritage estates and mitigate against the real impact of climate change.
Specializing in niche markets is a way of remaining competitive and differentiating in a market that is oversupplied by large commercial producers. Demand for Organic wines is growing, and allows for the easier penetration of new markets like the USA, the Far East and the Balkans.
WHAT ARE THE PRACTICAL IMPLICATIONS?
The most important change that has to be made is the “mindset” that organic methods will be different, but are productive and workable. With this conviction do your homework well and choose the best experienced advisors and input suppliers to support your conversion to organic production. Many failed organic farms attest to the “organic by neglect” or the “cheapest input” attitude, which will deliver similar results in a conventional farming operation. There are many salesmen pedalling “organic magic” to uninformed farmers who promptly disappear when unsatisfactory results are achieved. Make contact with and secure your markets and start adapting your promotional activity to accommodate the change to organic wine.